Cheryl Reavis’ historical romances have a number of qualities that I
really appreciate. Her settings are unusual; her characters are
realistic; her plots are based on the mores and attitudes of the past.
The Forbidden Bride shares all the above with Reavis’ other
books. Yet its unrelenting darkness prevents me from recommending it unreservedly.
The era and setting is certainly unusual. Reavis has set her tale in
1845 during the almost forgotten North Carolina “gold rush.” Before
there was California, there was North Carolina, but here the gold could
not be readily panned from any and every stream. Rather, it has to be
dug out of the bowels of the earth. Which brings us to the hero.
Tregear is a Cornishman who had to leave his home because of a scandal.
The orphaned son of a miner, he had been raised by a kindly minister.
But like so many men in his home, he had sought his living in the mines.
He has come to North Carolina, bringing with him a highly valuable
skill: the ability to read the veins of metal that lie below the earth
and to blast tunnels with pinpoint accuracy.
The heroine, Jane Ennis, has little to do with the rough and tumble
miners, even if her father has shares in the enterprise. She is the
eldest daughter of a wealthy doctor who has received a gentlewoman’s
education. She also has become her father’s assistant and has used her
developing skills to help some of the less respectable women of the town.
Tregear and Jane meet one night when he comes to her house, seeking her
assistance. Milla, once the Ennis’ housemaid, is about to give birth.
Milla was dismissed when it was discovered that she was pregnant and was
forced to turn to prostitution to support herself. Now she is about to
give birth and wants Jane to help her. Despite the knowledge that her
father will disapprove and that going to the poor girl’s assistance may
harm her reputation, Jane agrees. Tregear and Jane together bring the
baby into the world.
At first glance, this would appear to be a romance thwarted by a
difference in social status. But there are other forces at work to keep
the lovers apart. Dr. Ennis is, to put it mildly, a nasty, controlling
parent. He has disinherited his son for disobedience and he has plans
for his daughters. These plans do not include marriage. Jane and her
younger sister Eugenia will serve his need for companionship and
assistance. He will take any steps to maintain control of his daughters.
Despite the knowledge that their love is forbidden, Tregear and Jane
develop first an admiration and then love for each other. Tregear has
experienced betrayal and is angry at the world. He has no high opinion
of women but when he discovers Jane’s bravery and caring, he has to
change his mind. Jane only gradually becomes aware of the strictures
imposed by her tyrannical father. Tregear represents to her a freedom
she has never known.
The central event of the story, the catalyst for change, is a
devastating cholera epidemic that sweeps through the town. With this
event and with her depiction of the dangers of life in a mining town,
Reavis creates a compelling picture of a very different era. Likewise,
the power Dr. Ennis wields over his family is a reminder of how very
different the past was.
For all its sense of time and place (or perhaps because of this), The
Forbidden Bride has a dark tone that that may not appeal to many
readers. But Reavis is an immensely talented story teller and writer
and her skill is evident here. Those who appreciate visiting the past
will certainly enjoy this novel.